Tablets get a seat at the movies

Second screens have long been de rigeur for TV viewing, but programs like Disney's 'Little Mermaid' tablet activities are bringing them to movie theaters as well.

iPad screenshot

For many Americans, using one screen at a time is not enough. More than two-thirds of smart-phone and tablet owners use their devices while watching TV multiple times a week, according to a June survey from the research firm Nielsen. Nearly half of them do so every day. 

While TV networks have capitalized on this “second screen” trend by showing fan messages from Twitter during live broadcasts, Disney has taken the idea out of the living room and into theaters. Realizing that its target audience – the touch-screen generation (see story, page 26) – increasingly uses digital devices, the company has designed applications for moviegoers.

With the theatrical rereleases of “The Little Mermaid” in September and “The Nightmare Before Christmas” on Oct. 18, Disney launched companion apps for the iPad. Audiences can download the apps at home and then bring their tablets with them to the theater.

These special screenings make films like Ariel’s under-the-sea adventure feel a bit like a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” revival for 6-year-olds. When King Triton makes his royal entrance, the app tells audiences to “Cheer!” The lyrics to each song pop up on the tablet, encouraging people to sing along. And interactive games pit viewers against each other to see who can rack up the most points.

Kim Tracey Prince of Agoura Hills, Calif., says that before learning about Disney’s Second Screen Live app, her two sons had no interest in seeing “The Little Mermaid.” They considered it a “girl movie.” But she says that the iPad app lured them in. While Brady, age 6, got swept up in the story and quickly lost interest in the app, Kyle, 8, manned the tablet throughout the movie – nudging his mom occasionally for answers to the pop-up trivia questions.

“It was a huge hit and I’m glad we did it,” says Ms. Prince. “At the end, [Kyle] called it the ‘best movie ever,’ which is a rare attribute for him.”

As far as she could tell, they were the only family in the theater with an iPad, which led to some confusion. The screening stopped at certain points, giving players time to complete a task on their tablets. Unsure about what was happening, several people left the theater to complain that the projector seemed to be broken, Prince says.

These free apps work at home, as well. Second Screen Live can sync up with tapes, DVDs, or even clips on YouTube. But Disney designed these apps to experiment with live events, potentially making a night at the movies – pardon us, Aladdin – a whole new world.

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